“Selling” the Environment

John O. Sullivan

“When I go back to my home state of California, I don’t ever hear any of my constituents tell me ‘Senator Boxer, the air is too clean, could you dirty it up a little?’”

-Senator Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senator (D-CA, Ret.)

In 1991, 78% of Americans self-identified as Environmentalists. In 2017, that number has fallen to a minority, just 42%.

In 1998, 68% of Americans said the Environment should be given a priority, even at the cost of economic growth, compared to 24% of Americans who said the opposite. By 2014 that split had narrowed to 50-41.

In 2001, 81% of Americans favored setting higher pollution control standards for business and industry. In 2007, this number peaked at 84%. Another seven years later, that number had plummeted to 65% in 2014.

In 2007, 58% of Americans said the environment should be protected over development of new energy sources, against 38% who disagreed. In 2015 that gap had shrunk to 49-39

More than 50 “major” environmental legislations or regulations were enacted between 1947 and 1997, more than one a year on average. In the 20 years since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, only 7 such “major” regulations or pieces of legislation have made their way into U.S. law.

So, what happened in the late 90s and early 2000s that so thoroughly collapsed the green movement?

Personally, I blame Al Gore.

In 1992, Al Gore, one America’s first national-level politicians who identified primarily as an environmentalist, was nominated for the Vice Presidency by the Democratic Party. My position, which is backed by at least circumstantial evidence, is that he is the primary reason that environmental issues became seen as a partisan political, and not scientific, matter.

In 1995, the first polling on this question since the the election of Clinton/Gore, the number of people self-identifying as Environmentalists fell by 15% to 63%. It continued to fall to a bare 47% by the end of their second term. While the number of people identifying as environmentalists fell across the political spectrum, the reduction was most apparent in Republicans, who went from just 2 points under the national average in 1990 (72 vs 74) to 8 points under the national average by the end of the Clinton/Gore administration, (39 vs 47), to 15 points below the national average in 2016 (27 vs 42). Democrat self-identification as environmentalist, after an initial drop, is now recovering slowly, Republicans and Independents fleeing the “environmentalist” label has been the primary driver of the drop in percentage of Americans who identify as environmentalists. But why did Republicans start fleeing the environmentalist label so rapidly in the 90s?

President H.W. Bush, many have forgotten, started off as a casual, if not committed, environmentalist. One of his 1988 campaign promises was to expand the Nixon-era Clean Air Act, a promise which he delivered on. However, when campaign season came around in the midst of a recession in 1992, he took to calling Al Gore “Ozone Man,” and accusing environmental regulations of harming the economy (“We’ll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American”). Al Gore, by being an open and dedicated environmentalist, brought the environment into the partisan sphere. It is no coincidence that Gallup began its first polling on environmental policy in the Early 90’s. With the economy on the rocks and a sitting president’s re-election hopes in trouble, Mr. Gore became a symbolic target. The narrative that environmental issues and economic ones were inherently opposed found its way into the American psyche and stuck. Al Gore’s lasting legacy on environmental issues in the United States was not their advancement. He certainly raised awareness, but with the attachment of his name, environmental policy became a partisan matter rather than a scientific one, and those issues became mired in the same muck that entraps so many other issues in today’s Congress.

We see this perceived relationship between the economy and environmental policy even today. When the economy suffers, so does America’s’ commitment to environmental issues. When asked if the environment should be given a priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth, American’s willingness to accept that proposition decreases significantly when the economy is poor. During the early 90s recession (and the Clinton Gore Campaign), the number of Americans who put a priority on the environment fell by 10 points. It peaked again at 68% of people putting the environment first, and then plummeted to 49% during/after the .com bubble burst. It hadn’t even recovered to 60% when the Great Recession struck, and it fell again, going “underwater” in 2009. Coincidentally the market crashed just a few short years after the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth so thanks for that again, Al Gore. In 2009, fewer Americans were willing to put the environment ahead of the economy than vis a versa, a first-time occurrence since Gallup had begun asking this question. For what it’s worth, that number blipped back into the positives very briefly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and did not return to the positives to stay until 2014. Similarly, the number of Americans supporting government pollution controls has dropped a quarter of its value, from 84% to 65%, since the 07-08 crash. The number of Americans supporting the environment vs energy development also fell at the same time, from 58-34 in favor of the environment in 2007 to 41-50 with energy development in a distinct lead by 2011. President H.W. Bush’s message was simple, and it stuck: Save a Tree, Kill a Job. This line of attack has proven effective for decades now, which is why many Americans believe that regulation and pollution controls are inherently bad for the economy. As a result, even today, 25 years later, we see the number of people who support these measures drop suddenly during economic downturns. But why has this attack on environmental policy retained its efficacy? Because of one simple factor: Democrats are terrible at selling the environment as an important issue.

Over the Christmas holiday in 2015, my family did a first, an out of state trip to West Virginia, purportedly for skiing, snowboarding, and snowtubing (I’ve skied once in my life, but who doesn’t like tubing?). I’ll brush over the part where it was 50+ degrees in the mountains of West Virginia in late December and our skiing trip turned into a hiking trip, but when we were leaving, I noticed something. The tops of many of the mountains had clearly been strip-mined once, and now there were rows upon rows of wind turbines lining the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. That image has stuck with me even today, because you don’t often think of West Virginia as a renewable energy hub, but according to the Department of Energy, West Virginia did in fact manage produce nearly 2,700 MWh of electricity from renewable sources last year. Of course that was a pittance compared to the 5,000 MWh of electricity being produced from coal in West Virginia each MONTH, but it is illustrative of a key point: there are viable sources of renewable energy almost everywhere, even in the heart of coal country, and yet the plausible policy arguments for more efforts in these sectors are so weak as to be nonexistent. Democrats dare not even utter the words “green energy” in places like West Virginia because they’re so afraid of being tarred and feathered by a crowd of angry coal-miners. But the reason they’re at risk of a good ole’ fashioned tarring is because their arguments suck. What do West Virginia coal miners care about sea temperatures in the Pacific? They’re busy trying to put food on the table.

But I’m here to tell you: renewable energy is great. Even environmental regulations can be great. Clean energy creates jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, solar energy alone grew by 75% between 2012 and 2015, and in fact there are already more jobs in solar (210,000) than there are in Coal Mining (185,000) or Oil and Gas extraction (190,000). If this growth rate of about 25% per year for solar continued steadily, Solar would be a 6 MILLION job industry by 2030. Two-thirds of these solar jobs do not require a Bachelor’s Degree, 40% of solar jobs are in manufacturing and installation. I’m talking about 2.4 Million new, good, blue collar jobs in manufacturing, construction, and maintenance over the next decade and a half. Tell me that wouldn’t play in the Rust Belt. Wind energy is smaller and has grown more slowly than Solar, but the Wind Energy industry is still up to 88,000 U.S. jobs. With a solid but not astounding 5% growth per year, Wind is still far behind solar, but more than 68% of wind jobs are in manufacturing and construction. But you rarely hear about that side of things from Democrats, and when you do, it doesn’t become a national story line, because Democrats don’t want to beat the drum too hard on green issues. Al Gore is plenty enough example of what happens when you do that at the wrong time. But, I would argue that during an economic recession, in the areas most economically depressed, is the best time and place to talk about green energy.

Green energy aside, even the pollution-curbing regulations have historically not been shown to have the disastrous economic effect that their opponents often claim. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that government regulations were the cause of only one half of one percent of all “layoff events” in 2013, just 5 out of almost a thousand. Generally speaking, studies have shown that rather kill jobs, well-designed regulations usually have the intended effect of just moving the jobs from dirty industries to clean ones. Plus, pollution brought on by a lack of regulations can hurt jobs. I have a close friend who works as a white water rafting guide in West Virginia. People don’t want to raft on polluted rivers. What happens to his job when coal mining operations are once again allowed to spill waste into the rivers? His company shuts down and he loses his job. Sadly I have no detailed data on the number of jobs created by white water rafting companies, but this is illustrative of a key point: the impacts of a policy are rarely black-and-white. A regulation can create jobs in one place and cost them in another, but unfortunately it’s much easier to succumb to a simple narrative than it is to sit still long enough to hear all that.

And lets not forget that fossil fuels are already getting a pretty sweet deal from the government. They would want you to believe that they’re getting beaten senseless by the government, but they simply aren’t. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $3.2 Billion per year, or roughly 20% of energy subsidies, go to fossil fuels (45% of energy subsidies go to renewables, to be fair). More importantly, more than 40% of all U.S. coal comes from public land, which studies have shown, is rarely leased at a competitive market rate, and is almost always leased preposterously cheaply. Coal companies are getting the deal of a lifetime on public lands, which they also happen to be destroying while they’re at it. I wonder how economically efficient these companies would be if they weren’t being propped up by mining on public lands? And yet, there is another argument rarely heard from the Democrats on the environment.
In 2016, the United States was the second largest carbon emitter in the world (Thanks, China). Though the United States only houses 4% of the world’s population, we accounted for 16% of the world’s carbon emissions. The twelve hottest years ever recorded have all come within the last two decades. There is a 100+ mile long crack in Antarctica growing at a rate of 500 yards per day. There is a literal crack in Antarctica. The seas have doubled the rate at which they are rising over the past twenty years. Islands are being wiped off the face of the map in the Pacific Ocean. These are all facts. These things are not open to interpretation. They are not politics. They are not opinion. They are just facts. 97% of Climate Scientists, people who have dedicated their entire careers to studying the earth’s climate, agree that humans are the primary driver of climate change. While it might not be as easy to see that in West Virginia or Washington D.C. (though there were highs in the 70s in DC last week, it’s February), it is still happening. But this argument, for reasons of politics and Al Gore, isn’t enough for many Americans. So how about this: We can have cleaner air and water and more jobs, all at once. Environmental regulations, done right, create more jobs than they cost. Green Energy is poised to create millions of jobs over the next two decades, but it won’t be able to successfully do so unless it can be kept economical. If we wait for the solutions to be perfect, it will be too late. Energy subsidies and tax breaks for green energy producers may seem nonsensical, especially to deficit hawks like myself, but they are objectively creating jobs. The tax breaks are working exactly like we expect them to, allowing these industries to explode out of the larvae stage, perfecting their technology without sacrificing growth. This is a perfect example of how well designed policy creates long term economic gains. It is well past time for the Democrats to stop making an argument about “Saving the Planet” and start making an argument about saving our economy, about catapulting us from 1950 to 2050, right now.

Feature Image Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, proposed site of Oil Drilling. Image Courtesy of Arctic Journal.

4 thoughts on ““Selling” the Environment

  1. Very interesting piece here, one with which I agree entirely. I truly think that there needs to be a shift of tactics from the Environmentalist front; too many people (like the coal miners you mention) simply see climate change as something that affects “that place over there” and not something that will impact their lives. If the focus changes from “protecting the Environment” to “saving and loving Nature for its own sake” I think we might see some changes of attitude.

    Liked by 1 person

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